Thursday, March 27, 2008

Social Class, Psychology, and Dungeons and Dragons, Part I

A couple of years ago, I drifted back into a standing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign. Of course, the novelty of the game had faded away long ago, and even the mental effort required to relearn the game system hardly seemed worth it. I was so long out of practice that I almost had to pay one of my younger friends to roll up a character for me.

Approaching D&D from something of a renewed outsider perspective (also influenced by a developing geezer perspective), the actual game mechanics are not quite as interesting as the game meta-mechanics. In other words, the actual bother of deciding if any rule of the game was playable or not playable or just plain stupid is nowhere near as fascinating as the analysis of why the game makes players do the things they do or develop the social interactions that they develop. For an aging nerd, this also serves as a useful retrospective on what went wrong, but you'll see that as we go along.

Given how long my first elaboration on the theme is turing out to be, I'm going to have to make this post a part I. To begin, look at a simple question with some suggestive lines of analysis.

What is the purpose of D&D miniatures?

One interesting point that I noticed is that the Dungeons and Dragons miniature figure has dramatically grown in importance in the game system. I think I owned one or two of these little figures back in my grade school days (i.e. the early 80s), but in all of my role-playing game adventures from those days until recently, I don't think I've ever bothered with actually using one. It was something of a surprise to realize that the current verion 3.5 of D&D actually assumes that the miniature figure is an essential element of gameplay. Not surprisingly, there is a dollar figure associated with this phenomenon, but also the question of why players would want to bother with the extra time, effort, money and rules associated with these figures.

If anything, one would think that insisting that miniature figures be included in the game would make D&D even more of a social stigma for young players. Think about it: here is a game that assumes that geeky teenaged boys are going to need to buy "dolls", so to speak, in order to play it properly. Some gamers are even quite open about their disdain for miniatures:
As I'm going over the character sheets (Tira, Kathra, Corrin et al.) I keep getting this vague sense of deja vu.

Where had I seen these? Were they released in an earlier incomplete form? Did I see them in a dream?

Then it hit me. I had seen them before. In every Spotlight article about some new mini for the D&D Minis game.

Oh sure, they're a little more fleshed out now. A few more stat lines but that's about all the difference that I see. Squares. Defense scores. Features that depend on an ally (or allies) being so many squares away. Is this 4th Edition D&D or 2nd edition Minis?

Roles I can ignore. Squares I can easily translate into feet. Yes WotC [D&D is owned by the company Wizards of the Coast]. I can manage 4th grade math. The redundant explanations I can just roll my eyes and move on from ("Your powers are called spells, since they are from the arcane power source." WTF).

What I can't stand is having the Minis rulebook inflated and sold to me as the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
One obvious answer to the question of miniatures is that it happens to be an enduring legacy of D&D's roots in conventional military wargaming, but that leaves open the question of why miniatures were enduringly popular. Another possibility is that the importance of miniatures is a reaction to the D&D moral panic of the early 80s and the tragic suicides of two D&D players:
The moral panic was fed by the escapist nature of D&D. Role-playing games can provide a psychosocial moratorium, an idea suggested by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. The moratorium is key to Erikson's theories about the development of adolescent identity, in which a "time-out" is placed on the consequences of actions. A consequential moratorium provides youth with an opportunity to expose themselves to a variety of experiences without concern for the results of those actions. Doing so allows the individual to develop a core self, or identity (Turkle 203).

The media perceived D&D as having just the opposite effect. By associating their deaths with D&D, the media portrayed Egbert and Pulling as becoming more involved in their fantasy games as their concepts of self and reality began to dissolve, being replaced by the rules and worlds offered by D&D. Instead of enjoying a consequential moratorium, Egbert and Pulling allowed events in the game to have real-world consequences, causing a fantasy curse to lead to a player's real death.
In other words, it was exactly the free-form nature of the roleplaying exercise that was suspected to have negative psychological consequences. Anything that sets a definitive form or limitation on the use of imagination could thus be seen, in this light, as a safety feature. The use of miniatures in gameplay could be a rather powerful limitation on the use of imagination. Restricting players to the use of generic, mass produced, stock miniatures types would be a concrete, visual deterrent to self-identification of a player with his or her character.

Similarly, many of the other pathologies of the D&D system can be seen as (possibly intentionally) having this function. The mass proliferation of rules to cover every possible contingency or feature of a game -- culminating in a entire library shelf of rules supplements -- is another limitation to the imagination. Other limits to the imagination are game features such as the elaboration of generic characters; encouragement of a focus on game mechanics instead of interpretations of game mechanics; and rote game scenarios or very tightly scripted game scenarios. These are all notorious D&D game features that also serve a purpose of being a continual reminder that the participants are playing a game, thus deterring a presumably unhealthy self-identification between player and character or roleplay and reality.

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2 Comments:

Blogger kgagne said...

Interesting. I had considered miniatures as a way to make the fantasy world more concrete, but here you're suggesting that they're instead intended to make the game less fantastic. Perhaps that's a different way of saying the same thing, but I think it's subtly &mdash and powerfully — different.

It's fascinating how open to analysis this game is, thirty years after the late Gary Gygax first imagined it. Thanks for continuing to take this research further.

9:35 AM  
Blogger GeneD said...

Although I agree with some of your observations regarding role-playing, as another aging geek, I think that imaginative gamers can still find community, exercise creativity, and enjoy using various sourcebooks and miniatures regardless of the particular edition of whatever game they're playing.

I've had concerns about the limiting effects of various rules and props, but I've also found that they can help a group get to the characterization, setting, and collaborative storytelling that are at the heart of the hobby and that distinguish it from collectible card games and many computer games.

11:55 AM  

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